The Call of the Wild
A DESERT TALE FEATURING
Iguess the omens are good from the outset. Midway en route from Sydney to Perth the pilot comes over the loudspeaker and announces his name is Captain Barrel – not a word of a lie.
Photographer Russell Ord is there to collect me at the airport with a ski hitched to the back of his ride. Russ's videographer partner, quickdraw Darren McCagh, is riding shotgun and WA prodigy Jacob Willcox is in the back. Fourteen hours of long haul driving lay between us and Gnaraloo, where a six to eight foot swell is scheduled to coincide with our arrival. We are participants in the great migration north which surfers from the west make every year through autumn and winter. Once the thick Indian Ocean south swells collide with the desert-fringed waves of Ningaloo reef, the West Australians abandon their homes, their café-made coffees and regular comforts for a dusty camping ground up north – each year they answer the call of the wild.
Any Gnaraloo experience cannot be divorced from the epic drive required to reach the wave oasis in the desert. It's the necessary suffering one must endure before catching a barrel that may break your board and your body on first attempt. On the long, straight veins of bitumen, which cut through WA, a rare bond is formed between the passengers. Surrounded by a lunar landscape they become astronauts of the highway and talking story is one of the only ways to stay sane.
I ask Jacob about what it was like to beat Kelly Slater in round one of the Rip Curl Pro Portugal last year. How did the 11-time world champ react when his chances of a 12th title were made that little bit harder by a skinny 16-year-old surfing WCT heats between homework assignments? "I don't think he was very happy," suggests Jacob with a hint of deadpan humour. Wilcox has a wiliness about him. He's not shy but speaks with an economy of language that implies an intolerance for any kind of bullshit. His demeanour brings to mind Clint Eastwood in the classic western Pale Rider.
Jacob, however, is worried about another movie. In his final year of high school he is studying the modern classic American Beauty and has abandoned an uncompleted assignment to come on this trip. It seems curious that Jacob has his head full of a movie about screwed up suburban America while we are tearing through the dusty expanses of WA. The two settings could not have been any further apart. "My mum's freaking because I failed an English exam," he suggests. While many
of his young, pro surfing peers have abandoned their education, Jacob is determined to graduate. "I want to say that I finished school," he states sincerely, pointing out that completing high school was something Kelly did. When not studying or surfing, Jacob indicates he enjoys boxing training and sparring with 'Brooksy', a Margaret River local who's set up a ring in his home and coaches everyone from local kids to hard-hitting mums. Between Russ and Jacob I'm given a rundown on the boxing prowess of almost everyone in Margaret River who's pulled on a pair of gloves.
On the road north collisions with big roos and stray cattle are a constant threat. The highway is periodically stained with bloodied roadkill and the driver must be vigilant to avoid a faunal homicide. When we come up alongside a small car that is bereft of a bull bar the boys laugh scornfully. "I wouldn't like to be doing the trip in that," suggests Jacob who at 17 already has a decade of Gnaraloo road trips to his name.
We bypass a couple of massive cows that lie on their backs with their hooves obscenely upturned, and wonder what became of the vehicle that skittled them. Further along the road we slow down and stare into the ruthless eyes of a giant eagle, its beak bloody with the entrails of the eviscerated roo upon which it is perched. The eagle is the biggest bird of prey I have ever laid eyes on and seems to signify our entry into a land that is as inhospitable as it is starkly beautiful. A kill or be killed kind of place.
The stories flow as we chew through the miles. For entertainment value photog Russ Ord's tales are hard to beat. He tells us how in America he became a reluctant overnight star when he rescued a drowning surfer at Mavericks. Russ was taking photos when a first-timer at Mav's was caught by a sneaker set and thrown backwards with a pitching lip. By the time Russ got to him he was near-dead. He hauled the guy on to his ski and transported him back to land, where he was revived. The US media went crazy for the humble, good-natured Aussie. There were limo rides and TV requests for the fireman/photographer, who suggested he was simply acting as he would if he were on the job and rescuing someone from a blaze. So overwhelmed with the attention was Russ that he escaped back to Australia where a media frenzy again awaited him at Perth airport.
Perhaps more uniquely Australian is Russ's anecdote about his days as a professional rugby league-playing fireman. Young Russ found himself as the reluctant cover boy for the famed Men of the Fire Brigade calendar. When organisers insisted he partake in a catwalk parade to promote the calendar he got roaring drunk to cope with the embarrassment. Despite the violent hangover, the very next day he managed to kick the winning field goal in the last minute of his grand final.
THE CAMPSITE DOWN THE ROAD
When we roll in to the campsite late on a Tuesday afternoon, a stiff onshore breeze whips at the ocean's surface and the red dust. We are met by Matt and Shaun Manners. Shaun is another of WA's emerging talents and at the time of our arrival he and Jacob have claimed one contest apiece in the local state rounds. His father Matt is a respected surfer and shaper who has been coming north since the '80s. Matt and Shaun have parked their caravan at the base of a sand dune on top of which is perched an abandoned couch. On a clear day you can sit on the weathered lounge and stare down towards the Gnaraloo lineup in the distance – the perfect desert throne.
As Jacob sets up his swag, a towering figure with a goofy smile wanders past the campsite. Dawbs is on his periodic break from his mining gig and has bolted north for the swell. "Oh, how many grommets does it take to put up a swag?" jokes Dawbs, as Shaun helps Jacob with his elaborate mini-tent. "You don't have to worry about pegging them down if you've got the big 100kg frame like me," chuckles Dawbs. Dawbs is a familiar figure around the camp and back in Margaret River. There are not many places in the world where you can drive 14 hours north to a campground and find that most of the people there are friends from back home. In Europe you would be three countries and as many languages away from where you started, but in WA, such are the migratory patterns of the Margaret River folk, it somehow feels like you have just gone up the road.
The desert air is still full of bite as we load up the trucks and drive the short distance to the car park opposite the tombstones section of the reef. As forecast the wind has swung offshore over night and the first lines of the new swell are gripping the reef. What strikes you most about Gnaraloo as you look at it from front on is how quickly it shifts energy down the reef. The barrels look unmakeable but it seems I am about to be proven wrong.
Jacob and Shaun waste little time paddling out across the lagoon. The paddle is easy enough until you reach the edge of the lagoon where there is no defined gap in the reef and you have to run the gauntlet with the sets that implode unpredictably in front of you. The reef is peppered with coral heads that are like hidden mines – you never know when you are going to be hit by one. However, it's not so much the shallowness that you worry about but the power. Gnaraloo has been known to break femurs and snap collarbones.
“He roams the reef like a hunter in search of prey”
Within minutes of reaching the lineup, Jacob is bending his malleable frame into a series of barrels. He's been surfing here since he was six and spent half a year in the camp when he was only nine. At 17 he is a Gnaraloo veteran and his experience shows. He roams the reef like a hunter in search of prey, sling-shotting into deep runners, dragging his fingers across the roof of stand-up pits and artfully stringing together double barrel rides. He consistently takes off 20 yards deeper than the morning pack and the crowd is in awe of his approach.
When the first solid six-footer rolls through, Shaun Manners hurls himself over the lip on his backhand. From the comfort of the shoulder, it's like watching a mouse get chased off a balcony by a cat. Somehow he gets to the bottom but by the time he lands he's starved of speed and can't get around the section. "He usually pulls back on ones like that, " suggests Jacob, more than a little impressed with the effort
"It's pretty good watching these young grommets have a go," suggests one beaming punter who paddles past me.
Shaun's dad Matt is also one of the standouts, hacking huge turns off vertical sections and strongarming his way through gurgling pits. It's clearly apparent where the talent comes from.
The swell builds as the day progresses. At eight feet Gnaraloo is one of the most demanding waves on the planet. There is no easy entry point and just paddling in is like trying to jump on a derailed train. The long, coiling faces appear to be clean but they're often booby-trapped with kinks and bumps, which will buck you off unmercifully. It's not uncommon to hurl yourself over the ledge only to find another shelf of water three feet below you. A good ride often has less to do with enjoying perfection than it does with the satisfaction that comes from surviving one of nature's great obstacle courses.
Willcox seems to thrive on the challenge and gets barrelled so often that it's possible to analyse his tube riding mastery. His transition from lying prone on his board to being perfectly balanced in a standing position is lightning quick, however he never looks rushed. The movement is more fluid than a bird taking flight – the sort of quality Lopez possessed. Some people earn their tube props by fearlessly hurling themselves over ledges irrespective of ability. Jacob is simply more skilful, one for whom barrel riding is more of art form than a test of bravado.
Dino Adrian, Jarrah Tutton and Joel Ashpland all appear for the lunch time pulse. The offshore kicks in, the sun comes out and the gaping barrels turn a brighter shade of blue. The alluring aqua tint plays a cruel trick on the mind making the waves look inviting enough to make you think the barrels are more easily makeable.
By the time Shaun and Jacob come in from their first session, the carpark is full. It's a desert drive-in with non-stop entertainment – warping eight foot barrels, heroic rides and heavy wipeouts. The best part is you can paddle out and become a star in the show or a bit player any time you like. Like most world-class waves Gnaraloo has its devotees, underground tube hounds who charge fearlessly without the incentive of sponsorship dollars. As we watch from the carpark between sessions Margaret River's Joel Aspland freefalls over the ledge on his backhand and survives the buckles to score a magic ride that has the carpark crowd cheering. Not long after an unknown goofy footer with a heavy beard weaves his brightly coloured lance through a couple of collapsing tunnels and nonchalantly kicks out.
In the populated eastern states surfers know how to negotiate busy lineups, meanwhile in the North West even the average surfer can handle a heavy barrel.
By night at the camp one can find contentment enough in easy conversation and the spectacular celestial view. As we sit around and stare at the stars, Matt reflects on his first trip up here in the 1983 with Dave Macauley and a crew of intrepid WA chargers. " There was no fourwheel drive. We drove a Kingswood sedan up here and let the tyres down to handle the tracks… You weren't allowed to camp at Gnaraloo back then so we went to the Bluff… I remember going fishing with a hook attached to the end of a chain and almost being dragged in to the water by a shark," he laughs. The way Matt remembers it, the epic if not calamitous trip had a defining conclusion. "We went down to do the dishes on the rocks by the Bluff and they got washed away by a wave and that was kind of the end of it." While Matt is reminiscing about his trips up north, Daz is running around in the dark with his camera trying to capture the night sky with a couple of slow exposure tricks and Russ, the former rugby league professional, is bellowing out updates on the State of Origin match with the help of his radio. In the still of the desert night every site and every sound is just that little bit more vivid. Meanwhile Jacob and Shaun are already asleep, their bodies languid with over-exercise, their minds full of the barrels they'd ridden and the ones they might ride the next day.
We drove a Kingswood sedan up here and let the tyres down to handle the tracks… I remember going fishing with a hook attached to the end of a chain and almost being dragged in to the water by a shark
THE DESERT TRAINING GROUND
The following morning the swell subsides marginally but loses none of its frenetic grind along the reef. If anything it's a little cleaner. Jay Davies is peering intently seaward when we arrive at the carpark lookout. The hulkish natural footer has tweaked a knee and is out of the water. Although disappointed to be missing out on the fun he seems content enough to distract himself with other pursuits. "I came up with my chick. She likes eating fish and I like fishing so it's all good," he states matter-of-factly. At Gnaraloo, the second most-asked question after, "What are you riding?" is "What tackle are you using on your line?" With mackerel, tuna and an infinite number of other blue ribbon species up for grabs, fishing is a big part of the North West experience. So abundant is the supply of fish that restrictions on catch loads had to be introduced. Apparently keen anglers had been driving north equipped with giant refrigeration units and catching all the fish they needed for a year.
As we check the lineup WA videographer Tom Jennings points and gesticulates excitedly as an empty wave almost connects all the way from the outside section at Centres through to the main Tombstones section of the reef. "Antman, Camel and Dean Morrison have all had one that goes all the way through," suggests Tom as though referring to the holy grail of surfing at Gnaraloo. While we watch, big Dawbs crams his sizeable frame into a drainer at the Centers section of the reef and the morning crew cheer the good-natured giant all the way. At Gnaralooo you've always got a shot at being a carpark hero.
For Jacob and Shaun it's another day of relentless tube hunting.The green room rather than the classroom is the focus as they serve their apprenticeship at one of he world's most challenging training grounds. Hopefully one day they will be representing Australia at waves like Pipe and Chopes making use of everything they learned from the buckle-faced barrels of Gnaraloo. Although today is glorious Shaun is adamant that making it as a pro involves much more than surfing perfect waves. "You've definitely gotta love it… Be willing to surf crap. You gotta surf that crap and push through it. And it's not just winning heats. It's how you free surf. Look at John John – he won a couple of heats and releases some of the best clips in the world." Sounds easy enough in theory but the execution is a little trickier.
During the second session Shaun and Jacob are joined in the lineup by a pair of massive manta rays that flap their fins gracefully like birds of the sea. At one point the rays are so close to the pack they literally swim over a couple of surfers, reminding us all that we were just pedestrians in a marine highway. Dawbs in his infinite wisdom has a theory on why the two rays are hanging around. "They must be either eating or rooting I reckon," he proffers sagely between sets.
It's near-dark by the time the two grommets paddle in – willing slaves to Gnaraloo's simple routine of eat, sleep, surf, repeat. As they reach the shore the western sun is like a vainglorious actor prolonging his death scene for as long as he can – bleeding molten red over the dusk sky. If the desert night were not such a pretty murderer you'd never forgive her for killing off such an incredible day.
ROUND THE CORNER
Down at Dino Adrian's caravan the scent of Emu Bitters and last night's cooked mackerel still lingers as the morning sun slowly thaws the desert chill. After two straight days of big barrels and good fishing there had been cause for campfire celebration with a crew that included Jarrah Tutton, Jay Davies, and Joel Ashpland.
However, the first seedy draw of breath and bleary eyed glance at the ocean reveals the swell has hung in and the wind is just right for a certain right-hander around the corner. Although his heart may be set on a day of fishing, Dino knows it would be wrong not to check the spot. At a sensible hour that coincides with the optimal tide, Dino and his crew take the tyre-eating trail round the corner, bypassing a few grazing roos and the fearsome looking herd of wild goats that roam the desert flats.
By the time our own wave-weary crew makes its way to the same fabled spot, Dino is parked atop the spectacular lookout, umming and ahhing about whether or not to paddle out. The wave breaks some 50 metres below, at the base of a cliff. The shoreline – if you could call it that – is distinguished by angular boulders the size of houses, piled high on top of one another. The wave is an antipodean version of Backdoor Pipe, breaking barely a leg rope's length beyond a barnacleencrusted slab of reef. Fingers of rock jut into the lineup and gaining access involves a tap dance across the fragmented shelf that is full of holes and pitfalls. But ahhh the barrels on offer when you make it to the other side. Kelly once made the wave famous and Parko and Andy shared an epic session here many moons ago, but today it's just the boys who live in W.A.
"We've been here an hour and only really seen a couple," suggests Dino in his typically understated drawl. He looks ragged with his patchy beard and unkempt hair. It's not the manufactured look of dishevelment you might expect from a hipster – just a plain grunginess that says, "I'm here to surf and fish and I don't give a damn what I look like". Finally Dino decides it's worth a go out and nimbly descends the goat track that leads to the base of the cliff.
After negotiating the rocks Dino finds himself alone in a lineup located at the bottom of a cliff, in the middle of nowhere and the corresponding sense of vulnerability adds to the drama. From up on high it's difficult to gauge the size of the swell but the first set that rolls through is at least eight feet. As it pyramids Dino swings without hesitation, scratches in and barely makes it under the lip, where for a few wonderful seconds he stands bolt upright in a gleaming barrel like some kind of board-mounted trophy.
Annihilation seems inevitable as the wave twists from perfect chamber to violent closeout, but Dino plans his exit expertly and escapes as the descending lip erupts at his ankles. He's in front of a crowd that barely makes double figures but from up on the cliffs it feels like the ultimate big stadium performance and everyone goes absolutely mad when he emerges from the cloud of exploding foam. Inspired by Dino, Jarrah and Joel follow quickly behind and so begins the desert shoot out – Jarrah stylishly painting the roof with a dragged hand, Shaun pushing himself to go deeper with each ride.
THE DESERT DROP IN
When Dino snaps a legrope Shaun's Dad, Matt, is waiting at the base of the cliff with a back up. Matt makes Dino's boards and is relishing the opportunity to see equipment he made pushed to the absolute limit. After studying the lineup from every angle Matt hints that perhaps Jacob and Shaun should give it a shot. He's not at all pushy, rather it's the gently guiding voice of a wise father who knows much more can be achieved by quiet suggestion than self-serving insistence.
Shaun and Jacob respond to the challenge and take up a position in the lineup. It's a threshold moment – although both are highly competent surfers it's a session that will test both their temerity and skill. As they make their way out Dawbs appears at the edge of the cliff and shouts, "Come on Chippo show us what you got". To the Margaret River community who has closely followed his career, Jacob is known simply as Chippo or Chipper.
With the waves still firing the older trio are initially reluctant to relinquish sets to the grommets who are equally auspicious about laying claim to a bigger wave. However, both score decent rides, this time Shaun utilising his forehand to pull in a little deeper than his rail-grabbing sparring partner. Eventually Shaun and Jacob are the only two in the lineup and such is their desperation to score a bomb in front of the cameras and the crowd that they drop in on one another. Jacob will later claim it was his turn and Shaun will argue he
had the inside. With the wind shifting and the incoming tide moving the wave perilously close to the shelf, the two young surfers paddle in, both still fuming about the desert interference. A few minutes of stonewalling are followed by a little accusative banter but everyone is too buzzed from the session to let it become an issue. The incident only serves to reflect how much these two young wavesliders from West Australia both want to lay claim to their place in surfing.
By the time we arrive back at camp Jacob and Shaun are on good terms again, perhaps aware that their friendship will be valuable in a shared competitive future where there are many other foes to take on and situations to confront.
With another swell on the charts Matt and Shaun are staying on, father and son determined to gorge on the Gnaraloo barrels and content with the simplicity of caravan living. It's difficult not to be jealous of their freedom as I contemplate a return to east coast traffic and crowded beach break lineups. Jacob meanwhile has an AmericanBeauty assignment and his high school T.E.E. to occupy him. In a few days he's ridden deep inside countless glowing barrels, watched the sun conduct desert light shows and the night sky cast its spell, seen diamond-backed goannas scuttle and manta rays glide. Whatever AmericanBeauty was about it seems nothing on the Australian version. Another 14 hours of driving lay ahead. Fortunately there are plenty of waves to reflect on and Russell knows how to spin a good yarn. Just who earned the title of Captain Barrel on this trip is debatable, but everyone sure as hell had a good crack at the helm.
To see footage of the crazy tubes from this trip, go to Tracksmag.com and search for Comfort Caves.
Jacob Willcox perfoming at the Gnaraloo stadium. ||
Josh Ahspland backing himself hands free on a yawning Tombstones pit. ||
MAIN Dino Adrian middling a monumental right.|| ORD INSET Dino's desert dress code.|| ORD
MAIN: Jarrah Tutton testing out his wingspan in a dreamy tunnel.||